Which factors through the course of life promote
and protect cognitive capability and which increase vulnerability
Research programme: Mental Ageing
Programme leader: Professor Marcus Richards
UCL studentships: Gemma Archer, Alison
Other LHA scientists: Professor Rebecca Hardy, Professor Diana Kuh, Dr
Mai Stafford (Programme Leader Track), Dr Valerie Tikhonoff
- For collaborators on this programme please click here
This programme brings a life course approach
to bear on maintaining quality of later life through promoting
cognitive capability and reducing risk of depression. The essence
of this approach is to map life course determinants and
consequences of cognition and affect; their associations with each
other, and their associations with other aspects of health and
function through common and sequential causes. In most parts of the
world older people account for the fastest-growing proportion of
the population, with huge corresponding increases in the absolute
prevalence of dementia - a trend that is projected to continue well
into the future. In addition the World Health Organization has
identified depression as the leading cause of disease burden in
middle and high income countries. The long-term priorities of this
programme are therefore to reduce the risk of these outcomes using
a life course approach across all levels of explanation: from
societal opportunities and barriers, through behavioural choices,
to underlying biological regulation from genes, endocrine systems,
inflammatory mechanisms, and autonomic control.
The fundamental goals of the Mental Ageing
programme, over the next five years and in the much longer term,
are to identify how to optimise cognitive function and reduce risk
of depression in later life through a life course approach; and to
study how abnormal mental ageing impacts on other aspects of health
and function. This will be done within three closely inter-related
- Capturing mental ageing, focusing on life course trajectories
of cognitive function and mental health and the ascertainment of
clinically significant cognitive decline, neurodegeneration, and
- Maintaining mental capability in early old age, emphasising
education, work and retirement, and self-management of health;
- Integration of mental and physical ageing, investigating links
between cognitive capability and common mental disorder, and
between these entities and aspects of physical health:
cardio-respiratory, metabolic, musculoskeletal; and ultimately
Byford M, Kuh D, Richards M. Parenting practices and intergenerational
associations in cognitive ability. Evidence from two generations of
a British birth cohort. International
Journal of Epidemiology 2012, 41, 263-72.
study exploits the rare availability of data based on three
generations and provides evidence that parenting styles have
effects on cognitive development that are independent of
grandparental SEP, parental cognitive capability and mental health,
parental educational attainment and SEP, and offspring behavioural
Richards M, Brayne C. What do we mean by Alzheimer’s
disease? British Medical Journal 2010,
341(no. 7778), 865-867.
This invited analysis
paper challenges the pathology-led model of Alzheimer’s disease,
and argues that, in older age groups, this disease is a diffuse
clinical syndrome representing the gradual accumulation of multiple
pathologies, arising from multiple interlocking risk factors over
the life course.
Hatch SL, Feinstein L, Link B, Wadsworth MEJ, Richards
M. The continuing benefits
of education: adult education and midlife cognitive ability in the
British 1946 birth cohort. Journal of
Gerontology Series B 2007, 62, S404-S414.
study suggests an important choice of an activity that maintains
cognitive capability. It also reinforces our previous evidence that
education has a causal effect on cognitive capability, since the
association between the two was independent of prior cognition and
education, and of any social mobility that may have arisen as a
result of continuing education.
Richards M, Power C, Sacker A. Paths to literacy and numeracy problems:
evidence from two British birth cohorts.
Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 2009, 63,
Extending the path model of Richards
& Sacker, linking paternal SEP to midlife cognitive capability
in NSHD, the above study shows a stronger protective path from
education to functional literacy and numeracy in the British 1958
cohort than in NSHD, almost certainly resulting from raising the
school leaving age by one year in the intervening 12 years.
Murray GK, Jones PB, Kuh D, Richards M. Infant developmental milestones and
subsequent cognitive function. Annals of
Neurology 2007, 62, 128-136.
This paper was one
of the first studies to show an inverse association between
postnatal neurodevelopment, indicated by age at motor milestone
attainment, and cognitive development.
Richards M, Deary IJ.
A life course approach to cognitive reserve: a model for cognitive
aging and development? Annals of Neurology 2005, 58,
This position piece challenges the
conventional model of cognitive reserve, which holds that brain
structure or function buffer the clinical expression of
neuropathology but do not influence the risk of that neuropathology
occurring. On the contrary, a life course approach suggests that
factors influencing cognitive reserve, such as cognitive
development and education, are on the causal path to that risk. The
piece also suggests that reserve may be represented by mature
crystallised cognitive ability.
Richards M, Sacker A.
Lifetime antecedents of cognitive reserve. Journal of Clinical
and Experimental Neuropsychology, 2003, 25,
This is a path model linking early
circumstances (represented by father’s occupational social class)
to midlife cognitive function in the same respondents, via
cognitive development, educational attainment, and adult
occupational social class. The modelling technique allows all
direct and indirect paths between these variables to be estimated,
and provides a useful basic framework for a life course approach to
Richards M, Maughan B, Hardy R, Hall I, Strydom A,
Wadsworth M. Long-term affective
disorder in people with mild learning disability. British
Journal of Psychiatry 2001, 179, 523-527.
context of links between cognition and affect, this study showed
that mild learning disability was associated with a fourfold
increase in risk of affective disorder, not accounted for by social
and material disadvantage or by medical disorder.
Richards M, Hardy R, Kuh D, Wadsworth M.
Birthweight and cognitive function in the British 1946 birth
cohort. British Medical Journal 2001, 322,
At this time there was a strong
international interest in whether birth weight is associated with
cognitive development, in the context of the developmental origins
of health model. This was our contribution, which showed a graded
positive association between increasing birth weight and childhood
function until the heaviest birth weight quintile, which may
reflect macrosomy arising from gestational diabetes. The positive
association probably reflects early physiological common cause;
however, there was no evidence that the association extended into
Richards M, Kuh D, Hardy R, Wadsworth M.
Lifetime cognitive function and timing of the natural
menopause. Neurology, 1999, 52, 308-14.
This study began as an investigation into whether menopause was
associated with loss of cognitive function because of oestrogen
depletion. However, it became one of the first to show that, in
fact, higher childhood cognition predicts later menopause. This
association was robust to numerous potential confounders, and was
stronger the earlier cognition was measured.
For a full list of publications from
2007-2012 please click here.
For more recent publications please look on our findings page
which can be found by clicking here.